Is Weight Watchers Smarter Than Your Doctor?

Illustration for article titled Is Weight Watchers Smarter Than Your Doctor?

If you take a look at the headlines today, you'll learn that we've finally found the answer to our weight loss woes. Reuters, The Washington Post, USA Today, and many other news outlets are reporting that people who joined Weight Watchers lost more weight than those who tried to lose weight with their doctor's help. Technically, that is the finding of an independent, scientifically-rigorous study, which just happens to be funded by Weight Watchers International. However, despite what Jennifer Hudson will say in her next commercial, the point isn't that everyone who wants to slim down should join Weight Watchers, but that doctors aren't as effective as they should be.


Yesterday the British medical journal The Lancet published a study that found people who followed the Weight Watchers plan for a year lost twice as much weight as those who consulted with their doctors. The Post reports:

Researchers in the U.K., Australia and Germany tracked a total of 772 overweight and obese people who sought to lose weight. Roughly half were assigned to follow weight-loss guidance hewing to nationally accepted standards of care and offered by their primary-care doctors. The others were referred by their primary-care doctors to take part, free of charge, in Weight Watchers. After attrition, the first group included 214 people, the Weight Watchers group 230.

By the end of 12 months, those in the Weight Watchers group lost a mean of about 15 pounds (6.7 kg); those under their doctors' guidance lost just over 7 pounds (3.3 kg). The Weight Watchers group also saw greater reductions in waist circumference and fat mass.

Though Weight Watchers provided a grant to the U.K. Medical Research Council, the authors say that, "the sponsor had no role in the study design, data collection, data analysis, data interpretation, or writing of the report." The fact that the study led to dozens of publications declaring that Weight Watchers is scientifically proven to work is just a happy coincidence.

Many people have found Weight Watchers' plan to be helpful, and their approach is much healthier than many diet plans out there, especially when compared to the wide variety of celebrity-endorsed methods like QuickTrim pills or cayenne pepper and maple syrup cocktails. But aside from the study not comparing Weight Watchers to other weight loss plans, people who want to shed pounds shouldn't have to sign up for a commercial plan.

If someone wants to lose weight for health reasons, she should be able to do so with help from her doctor. However, what the study reveals is that currently many primary-care physicians aren't providing patients with easily understandable information on exercise and nutrition, and support throughout the weight loss process. Jennifer Lovejoy, president of the Obesity Society in the USA, tells USA Today:

"In most health care systems, physicians have limited time to spend with patients and may not even be reimbursed for the multiple visits over time required to help people lose weight."


The study's authors suggested it might be wise for publicly-funded healthcare to cover commercial weight-loss programs like Weight Watchers. While that may be a temporary solution, a better plan would be for physcians to look at the elements of the Weight Watchers plan that appear to be effective, like weekly weigh-ins, regular guidance, and group support. Doctors should be looking for ways to integrate these methods into an even more effective plan for their patients, not recommending they join a commercial program that may or may not be healthy.

Weight Watchers Works, Study Shows [Washington Post]
Dieters Lose More On Weight Watchers Than Visits To Doctor [USA Today]



In the summer of '10 I went to a new doctor for a checkup and to talk about weight loss. The doctor asked me what I ate in the past few days (so he could better understand my eating habits). When I told him that a few nights before I had eaten three slices of vegetable pizza(w/o cheese) and four shots of vodka, his face noticeably changed. He was disgusted by me and my obese body and my horrendous eating patterns.

I explained to him that I had always struggled with my weight for my entire adult life and genuinely wanted help. I told him I had been a vegan for 3 years and thought I ate really well(healthy) most of the time. I also explained that I had lost about 80 lbs a few years prior by restricting to no more than 300 call a day. I told him this made me feel awful and unhealthy. I also told him I gained 50 of it back.

His solution? I needed to exercise for 2-3hrs 6 days a week. He also suggested that I cut out all carbs and limit my daily caloric intake to 1,000. Maybe some people run effectively at 1,000, but I am 5'10 with shoulders that wouldn't have needed padding in the 80s. It felt like he was just pulling numbers from the air.

When I said as much to him(that the plan felt unrealistic to me), things got worse. He didn't scream at me, but his tone changed to attack mode. He asked me why I even bothered wasting his time if I wasn't interested in changing my habits. He told me I was obviously too heavy to be healthy and I obviously had no concern for my own well being. He looked at me like I was an wild animal.

I am not an easily offended and I hardly think I blew his reaction out of proportion. He was sincerely disgusted with having to deal with me. I got in my car and just bawled. I then vowed to never talk with a doctor about my weight again.

The point of all this? I can easily see how anyone can be better at aiding with weight loss than your local physician.